Absolute Fools

A recent post on the worldview of contemporary postmodern liberalism was kindly linked by Gerard Vanderleun over at American Digest. In his link post, a commenter left the following missive:

The essay would have value if there were absolutes. Never have been, never shall be. Our standards of behavior are devised by us, and used or misused by us. We decide which is good and which is evil, and in every case we are right and wrong at one and the same time.

Each of our rules and regulations is enforced through agreement, and through coercion. The wise among us agree to follow the laws because it makes for a calmer, safer life. The fools among us must be made to follow those same laws because they haven’t the wisdom to see the necessity. And this speaks of those ordinances that do make sense.

Those that do not have to be enforced through coercion more often than not because they really don’t make any sense. And there are times when our rules make more or less sense than other times because circumstances differ.

We are responsible for our laws, and for our adherence to them. Our legislation being wise is to our credit. Our legislation being cruel is to our shame. Nobody else can remove that charge from our shoulders.

Now, I take no issue with this gentleman personally; he is doubtless a bright fellow, well-educated in our institutions of higher learning, where professors emeritus emote their postmodern erudition in the lofty ephemeral ethers, far removed from the dross of desperately-ignorant humanity. He is more to be pitied than censured; he has, after all, been taught not to think. But he serves herein a useful purpose, insofar as his comment exemplifies the mindset of those who eschew the idea of absolutes — which assertion is the very metaphysical mortar of secular postmodernism.

I find it interesting that most every argument rejecting absolutes contains within its very language and structure, not to mention its premises, a framework of absolute assertions. And our subject does not disappoint: tossing around terms like “wise” and “fools” and “shame” and “credit”, qualitative words without meaning when there is no transcendent standard against which to measure them. What is shame if not the humiliation of rejecting an absolute good? Who is wise, and who a fool, if there is no standard of enduring and unchangeable wisdom by which to categorize one thusly? The lines of their straightedge are random and irregularly spaced — if there are measuring lines at all — yet they carefully measure and mark off “progress”, confident they have measured accurately. There is, of course, the inevitable rejoinder to all such foolishness which asks, “Are you absolutely sure there are no absolutes?” But beyond this childish rebuttal — childish, not in the sense of silliness or immaturity, but rather of unvarnished simplicity — there lies an even more evident and profound incoherence which can be discerned — from which a not-so-evident proposition emerges from the heart of anti-absolutism.

It is impossible to function as a human being in society without the concept of transcendent absolutes, even if this foundational principle is unrecognized or denied. We as humans do not simply move as pack animals, driven by instinct and primal drives, but are by our very nature creatures of judgment. We are constantly comparing, evaluating, appreciating or depreciating everyone and everything around us. The food is either tasty or awful; the woman is attractive or homely; the music is beautiful or grating; the weather is warm and pleasant or cold, wet, and miserable. Of course, some of these judgments are self-referential: the food tastes good to us, or bad to us; we prefer rock music to Rachmaninoff, while others may differ. Thus to some degree, we individually determine the standard against which we measure objects apart from ourselves. Yet even there it is possible to compare our preferences to a fixed standard: is slasher rock not discernibly different in quality from a Bach fugue?

But within the realm of human interactions, writ large as communities, societies, nations, and cultures, judgments about the outside world become collective, embodied in law and cultural and social strictures. Behavior which is objectionable to some is desirable to others; that which some find beneficial others find harmful. It is at this level of community and human interactions where some overarching determination or standard against which interpersonal behavior is measured becomes utterly necessary if we are to avoid a society capricious in its justice or cruel in its enforcement.

The anti-absolutist posits this standard in the consensus of the group, be it tribal, community, or society. The society at large, whatever its dimensions, determines that certain behavior is acceptable or unacceptable, and enforces the standard through collective coercion or force. While this seems plausible at first glance, it almost immediately runs into problems with the de facto use of absolutes. What standard will the collective mind of a society choose? Is it simply the standard of survival? Is it a collective self-gratification? Self-interest alone? And how can it be a standard at all without becoming, to greater or lesser degree, a transcendent absolute?

If, as our commenter suggests, we decide for ourselves what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong, are these standards not infinitely malleable by their very nature? Such a philosophy of law is nothing more than the tyranny of the masses, the rule of the mob. For a society may agree by consensus that certain members of the society are inferior by nature, or should be exterminated, or have their possessions confiscated, their daughters raped, their members sold into slavery. Such societies are not mere abstract entities, but stark historical realities, evident in gulags, ethnic cleansings, and rape rooms to which even our most recent decades testify. Such a philosophy in its purest form is the will to power; those who gain dominance, either in number or by force, determine the standard against which all will be judged.

The notion that such a standard is invariably beneficial to a society or culture is ludicrous in the light of history. One need look no further than the 20th century, where the social consensus arising out of pathologies such as Nazism, Marxism, and the emperor worship and militarism of Japan, wrought horrors upon not only the world, but especially on the societies which themselves embraced these pathologic standards. That German militarism and anti-Semitism was profoundly destructive to the very society which engendered these ideas and standards is self-evident; ask the citizens of Hiroshima how Japan’s imperialistic and fanatical militarism panned out.

Yet the world of the anti-absolutist one cannot form a judgment about any such self-evident evils. It cannot say that Nazism and the Holocaust were evil — they can only say that by their own standards, self-engendered and not universal, that such abominations are different. The inevitable moral indifference arising from such a philosophy runs counter to every fiber of the human spirit. We cannot say such things are evil if we cannot reference them against an absolute standard arising above, and transcending, any consensus formed only by a society.

Our very language is steeped in the vocabulary of absolutes — it is impossible to communicate without them. Good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice, wisdom and foolishness: these concepts are universal, ubiquitous, and unresectable from language and thought, across all cultures and civilizations.

The consequences of the rejection of absolutes, fully embraced, are nothing short of anarchy — or in its stead, tyranny. There can be no true justice, for justice appeals to a standard above the law, and thus judges not only behavior contrary to law, but the law itself. Absent a transcendent moral absolute, there is no limit to the granularity at which arbitrary determinations of good and evil, right and wrong, may occur. it is a recipe for tribalism at best, as competing groups determine their own rules, rejecting those of other groups, large or small, which run contrary to their perceived needs or desires. The inevitable conflict between tribal standards can bring nothing but perpetual conflict or isolation.

Those who claim to reject absolutes do not in reality reject all absolutes. There is never a quibble about the law of gravity, or the laws of nature, or those of nuclear physics or astronomy. Were they consistent in their philosophy, they would reject the term “law” (which implies an underlying transcendent; there is, after all, no laws without law-givers), and instead describe what their metaphysics mandates: that seemingly predictable behavior is no more than random coincidence; the electron may fall into the nucleus at any time, ending this existence as dramatically and as randomly as it came into being. As Chesterton said, “They feel that because one incomprehensible thing constantly follows another incomprehensible thing the two together somehow make up a comprehensible thing.”

At the very heart of a philosophy of deterministic, self-engendered moral standards stands the individual. The rejection of moral absolutes is nothing more than radical individualism broadcast across society — the notion that we are the sole arbiters of our behavior and morality, the we alone determine what is right and what is wrong. As a corollary, there is another assumption underlying this one: that others should bear the consequences, especially adverse consequences of our actions. Those who reject moral absolutes gravitate to a nihilistic narcissism, where there are rights but no responsibilities, demanding freedom to act as they please without thought for anyone else, all the while demanding that others rescue them from wreckage their behavior has wrought.

This battle of worldviews lies at the very heart of our culture wars, of the endless societal conflicts engendered over abortion, or religion in the public square, or the status of heterosexual marriage, or unrestricted sexual license, or any one a host of other seemingly irreconcilable culture clashes which saturate and sour our daily lives. It is a take-no-prisoners battle, for there is no middle ground, no comfortable compromise which will bring peace and harmony. It is a battle to the death, a battle not only of the mind but of the heart.

It is, above all, about bending the knee, a battle for the soul: we will submit to the absolute, or destroy ourselves in dark delusion denying it.

It’s long past time we choose which it will be.

The Utopia of Relativism

The talk of the past week or so in political circles has been Barack Obama’s tour of Europe — in particular his non-political political speech in Berlin. Two of the better commentaries you will find on the event are the devastating critique by John Bolton, and the more humorous, but equally effective demolition by
James Lileks. I recommend you take a few minutes to digest these gems.

Now, I cannot hope to match the insight and wit of such as these — but nevertheless I hope to toss a few ideas and impressions into the arena of discussion on this subject. I rarely touch on politics on this blog, as others far more passionate and adept at such commentary abound. But there were some undercurrents in the speech which I found very emblematic of our current age, and very troubling, and perhaps I may offer a few insights of value.

First, the purely political: isn’t this man running for President of the United States? So, why on earth is he giving political speeches to the Europeans? I suppose it is a feeble attempt to burnish his anemic foreign-policy credentials — although I strain to understand why shaking a few foreign hands and giving a too-slick speech to our Germanic übermeisters somehow augments one’s foreign policy portfolio. Having your picture taken with a cow does not a dairy farmer make.

Then there was the heady libation of contemporary liberalism: the obligatory apologies to the rest of the world for America’s great failures. Shortcomings we have an abundance — but, apologizing to the Germans? To the Germans? The same Germans, who spent the first half of the 20th century — and no small part of the previous century — conquering Europe, slaughtering millions and wreaking untold havoc on an entire continent? The same Germans, who killed millions of our soldiers, 6 million Jews, and countless other political and social outcasts in their concentration camps and euthanasia centers? The same Germans for whom we, having crushed them at enormous cost of life and treasure, then rebuilt their country and defended them from another 40 years of horror under totalitarian communism?

Could someone please explain to me why, in any just and rational world, an American politician should apologize for our behavior, to the Germans?

I just had to get that off my chest. There, I feel better now.

But on to larger things: large swaths of the speech spoke in vaunted and eloquent terms of the hope and desire for world united, a world without walls. We heard repeatedly about how such walls — both actual and metaphorical — must be torn down, removing all divisions which confront and challenge us:

That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.

The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.

Now color me a contrarian, but I am not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this wall-breaching braggadocio. As Robert Frost once wisely said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Should we really be about tearing down every barrier which divides us? Aren’t some of these fences, some divisions, critically important to our safety and integrity? After all, prison walls divide us from the criminals — should we not, if we want to live in peace, harmony, and new age oneness, tear these walls down as well? Is every division, whether existing between nations, or races, or tribes, or religions, by its very nature a candidate for dismantling?

Some divisions, it seems, exist for our protection: the division between freedom and tyranny; the division between nations which oppress and those who liberate; the division between good and evil itself. But to uphold and defend these necessary walls, there needs to be a conviction of the absolutes which form their ramparts. You cannot defend good from evil if “good” and “evil” are but fungible and flexible preferences, made near-meaningless with endless shades of gray obscuring their sharp contrasts and muting their colored brilliance. If right and wrong are detached from their transcendent mooring in absolute truth, and made mere preference or personal piety, then there is nothing left to defend. The walls which have kept the barbarians at bay now become broad promenades welcoming in regal splendor the very forces which will enslave us.

Our modern secular utopians, like their brethren throughout the ages, ignore the differences which matter while elevating the differences which do not. Hence the Christian who stands against the slaughter of the unborn innocents and the Muslim who slaughters the innocent through self-immolation become indistinguishable — both “extremists”, both “divisive” — and we must tear down these walls to live at peace. Such distinctions between religions and philosophies run to the core of their very nature: to dismantle the division is to destroy their unique character, to render meaningless any judgment about which worldview is better for the well-being of man and society. Be hot or be cold, as someone once said — but the lukewarm will be expectorated, with extreme prejudice.

And what of destroying the “division” between rich and poor, the West and East? Is not one more wealthy, more free, more successful, more propitious to its citizens exactly because of the differences which divide us — specifically, respect for human life and property, for rule of law, for individuality, for a spirit of generosity and sacrifice arising out of Judeo-Christian principles instilled at its founding? Shall we instead denigrate a nation which, for all its flaws, has sacrificed countless lives and expended endless lucre throughout its history to free the enslaved and crush the tyrant; shall we become the object of self-loathing and shame which must grovel for its sins before the sinister, the enslaver, and the slothful? Is this the price of such world unity? We have seemingly arrived at a place where we are unable to proclaim the good without the ridicule of the glib; we cannot call an act evil but to the catcalls of the cynics.

In our utopian zealotry, we attack the divisions of substance while elevating the divisions of appearance. The unity which is our strength — a common culture, and language, and shared set of moral values — must now give way to the triumph of the superficial: we categorize by color rather than by character; we talk of freedom while enforcing speech codes and pursuing thought crimes. Religion is our enemy while conformity becomes our religion. Science becomes truth and truth becomes myth; We are overcome by evil because we refuse to call it by name.

The gnostic hubris which is our modern foolishness boasts in what it knows, while knowing not what it does not know. Our ignorance of human nature cripples us; we believe that if we reason with evil, evil will change, charmed by the magic of our words and soothed by the sincerity of our childish desires. Like some love-maddened missionary, we sleep with the strumpet to save her soul, then find ourselves amazed when we become as lost as she.

There is, in truth, but two ways to unity: the way of inner submission, and the way of outer coercion. Within the limits of the frailty of our fallen nature, we achieve a measure of unity by common compliance to inner morals, arising from the recognition of a transcending set of absolutes which dictates such standards for both the individual and the common good. We acknowledge a standard of behavior and restraint which arises from the divine — though we often fall short of this standard, and may differ in some measure on its particulars. We become one — imperfectly to be sure — because we submit to and follow One, whose perfect moral standards and ethical precepts are held as the highest ideal and a noble pursuit.

When such an overarching absolute standard is rejected — as it has been by aggressive secularism, atheistic, reductionist, and materialistic to the core — we can only enforce a form of unity through coercion and power. Inner moral dictates must be subjugated to coerced conformity. It is “acceptable” to hold “values” which are at odds with the secular societal standard — as long as these “values” are never acted upon in speech or behavior. We may believe abortion to be morally abhorrent — but must never act to restrain it; we may hold homosexuality to be morally wrong and believe gay marriage to be a threat to a core foundational institution of society — but to verbalize thus is “hate speech”, and “intolerance”, and “ignorance.” Our unity is the unity of the gag, a multicultural muzzle which celebrates the superficial, elevates the insignificant, tolerates the intolerable — and punishes the moral. Our unity is the unity of relativism, a superficial solidarity where everything is acceptable but absolutes, where anything is tolerated but truth. Such unity strives for the lowest common denominator, maintaining its forced cohesion by the will to power, destroying in its enslaving solidarity the very soul of freedom and the heart of true human harmony.

It is no small irony that Obama proclaimed his utopian tome to the Hun — they of the fertile ground which brought forth Nietzsche and Hegel, and a National Socialism which crushed the dividing walls of Old Europe with an iron fist and a broken cross. Our modern nihilism is far more appealing, wrapped in soothing bromides of hope and change — but no less corrupt and empty at its core.

Beware the man who brings unity at the cost of individuality. Beneath the sheep’s clothing lies something far more ominous than smooth words and glib promises betray.

The Road to Grace: Honesty

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace
  5. The Road to Grace: Transparency

 
Honesty.

Perhaps the rarest of all human virtues, treasured mostly in its absence, brought into focus most sharply in its antithesis.

If you ponder the subject for a moment, you may well find it surprising that we are anything but honest — that we do less than express exactly what we think, that we are anything but open and honest about our actions and motives. There are, after all, no dishonest dogs, no lying cats (though some might differ), no roguish raccoons or shady shellfish or mendacious mammals — save man.

So why, then, do we twist and torture the truth, crafting clever stories or deft deceits to cover our shortcomings and faults, smiling warmly while telling the most audacious prevarications concerning things both weighty and trivial? Why is this so often our default behavior?

What, exactly, are we trying to hide?

The answer lies in that dark angel of shame, that inner incubus engendered from a life spent divesting endless energy in the pursuit of the empty self. For dishonesty arises from evil, from the desire to hide that which must not be seen, from the need to present ourselves to others as something other than we are. Our ruptured relationship with God produces a perverse and unnatural self-sufficiency, driven by the desperate desire to fill the vast inner chasm thus resulting with a host of destructive desires, behaviors, and obsessions.

These fevered yet futile attempts to kill the existential emptiness and primal agony of life lived unnaturally, isolated from the life-source of God, prove highly toxic, causing yet greater distraction by their inevitable consequences. Designed to give, we strive endlessly to acquire; created to love, we engender hatred, exploiting others to fill our unquenchable needs, and detesting them when they prove unable to meet them. Our relationships become, not fertile beds of true intimacy, but vast webs of manipulation, abuse, resentment, and fear, as we suck the life out of others, seeking to satiate the insatiable void in our still-empty soul.

When we use the finite and futile to fill our edacity for the infinite, the invariable outcome of this manic miasma is a deepening conviction of our own guilt and growing awareness of our intrinsic unworthiness. Yet there remains a gossamer thread still tying us to the divine, an ancient truth near forgotten, a genesis of the God-life deep within, which says this can not, this must not, be true. And thus we craft another narrative of necessity, convincing ourselves and all around us that we are something which in fact we are not.

This pervasive dishonesty is the antithesis of transparency, and if we are to approach the ideal of being truly integrated — our inner self and outer appearances drawing toward unity — then we must come face to face with our own deceitfulness. This pilgrimage toward honesty must begin with the one with whom we are most deceitful: ourselves.

In our sophistry and sophistication this self-delusion is called by many names: rationalization; minimalization; justification; denial; projection. Though we often place such concepts solidly in the realm of science and psychology, they are in fact the attributes of a soul unwilling to face its inner abyss. They are, distilled down to their sordid essence, our unwillingness, our inability, to be rigorously, ruthlessly honest with ourselves.

Such a journey to the center of the soul cannot, indeed should not, be undertaken alone. The very strongholds we wish to conquer are such that they unite in their own defense: you will reason that you do not rationalize; you will deny your denial; project your fury at yourself onto others; minimalize your own responsibility for much which ails you. The mind is a dangerous neighborhood, best visited with another.

There is much to be learned from those who have undertaken this road to rigorous honesty through the crushing collapse of all of life’s props, brought about by the slavery of addiction and alcoholism. Driven to utter depredation and despondency by the scourge of a compulsion unbeatable and hopeless, they stagger into smoke-filled halls and church basements to seek what help they may from others of their kind. There they find kindred spirits — coarse in speech and common in appearance — yet victorious over the selfsame demons which shriek within their own dissipated minds.

They hear, for the first time, a startling truth:

Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

Honesty: how peculiar, how unexpected, how self-evidently foolish as the solution to a deadly losing battle against booze. Yet those who triumph are those who become most willing to expose their darkest secrets, to face their shame, to lay it open before God, and share these hidden horrors which have enslaved them with another trusted friend.

Of course, you protest, you are not at all like those people, drunks and druggies, whose lack of moral character, hedonism, and enfeebled will must depend on such extreme and ridiculous measures to overcome their moral turpitude. You, on the other hand, a faithful Christian, have seen the light, and are walking the straight and narrow, secure in your own righteousness — err, the righteousness of Christ. The truth has set you free, after all — you know Christ.

Uh-huh.

And Christ knows you, and spoke about you often: something about “whitewashed tombs” comes to mind.

The path to honesty starts — startlingly — by getting honest, first and foremost, about ourselves. The dark heart of man knows no bounds — and the Christian is no exception, no matter how righteously we present ourselves to the outside world. Our hearts are filled with greed, lust, hatred, fear, pride, and extreme selfishness. Our one great advantage is this: when we are honest about our true nature, and act on that honesty, there is grace unlimited to overcome these inner demons.

So how then should we proceed?

We should, first of all, be systematic. Recovery programs use an approach which lists resentments, fears, and harms done to others — thereby covering a vast expanse of problems in human relationships which poison the soul — relationships so often devastated by the extraordinary self-centeredness so central to addiction. Other structured formats exist, based on lists of character defects, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, the seven deadly sins, or other moral or spiritual principles. In a subsequent post I hope to expand on the recovery model, as well as provide a list of questions as a starting point to discovering core moral failings. The key here is not to achieve some legalistic righteousness, nor to engender guilt and self-pity, but rather to bring about conviction — that painful but healing knowledge of where we have failed, which is the commencement of a journey toward breaking the control of self-centered evil over our lives.

The second point is this: we do this to share with another. We should not strive to paint a rosy picture to impress, nor fill our story with a host of justifications, or endless whining about how life and its inhabitants have done us dirty. Surely they have in many instances — but we are responsible for our own attitudes and actions, regardless of the culpability of others. If we are rigorous and honest with ourselves, we will generally find we have brought much of life’s pain upon ourselves.

And lastly, we must pray. Unaided, our souls will drift and dodge, and find a million excuses for putting off this necessary work or justifying our ill motives and evil actions. Prayer empowers us to know, and in knowing, enables us to change. “I am the Truth and the Light” — both the ideal and the means to grasp and achieve it.

Everything inside you will rebel at this task, complete with procrastination, timidity, and our insane busyness whereby we avoid facing life’s painful truths and necessary reflections.

And of course, this self-examination isn’t really necessary, after all.

Unless, of course, you want to experience grace.

The Road to Grace: Transparency

Fifth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace
  4. Getting to Grace

 

We’ve been discussing some of the core principles of how the Christian faith works — not by adhering to a new set of moral dictates or rules to follow, but by undergoing a transaction which begins with forgiveness and judicial innocence, empowered by a profound inner change, a new inner man which draws us toward the fulfillment of new purpose and direction, aligned with God’s will. This inner transformation creates conflict, as the habits and strongholds of a lifetime of self-will do not die easily. While our course is being realigned toward a new direction, our free will remains fully intact — and often quite committed to the comfortable and convenient paths which, while hoary and familiar, still prove destructive and counter-productive.

Some of these old patterns change quickly under the assault of grace and the insight and changed motives of our new life. But many are stubborn — fortified fortresses, hewn from heavy stones, built up over many years as survival skills for coping with the pain and emptiness which is the hallmark of the self-centered life. These challenges take many forms: bitter resentments; irrational fears; addictions in their many forms; compulsive deceitfulness; rage and anger; arrogance, condescension, manipulation, and many other manifestations of our self-centered, self-serving dispositions. Many Christians falter while assaulting these lofty walls, throwing themselves repeatedly against their bulwarks in futility and frustration, only to fail yet again.

But not all meet these insurmountable challenges with frustration and failure. Some — almost ironically, those most profoundly defeated by these very assaults — find another way — a way which turns their very defeats into powerful, yet humble, victories. They find in their brokenness, wholeness; in their hopelessness, hope; in their shattering, salvation and strength. It is a victory not achievable by force of determination or strength of will; its power lies in utter defeat, sanctified and empowered by the embrace of grace.

One of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith is this: those who are most profoundly defeated are best equipped to help others suffering these same defeats. No one helps an alcoholic like a recovering alcoholic; no one can touch and comfort one mired in depression like one who has experienced that dark hell themselves — and transcended it through grace. We are afflicted that others may be healed.

There is in today’s culture a toxic strain of Christianity, a bastard born of a great faith incestuously whored with the shallow nihilism of obscenely prosperous materialism, which teaches that we should all be wealthy, all be healed, all be delivered from every difficulty by a simple word of faith or healing prayer. But quick-fix Christianity is a Golden Calf, an empty shell of a faith made great not by wealth and comfort but by the suffering of its saints. We are delivered to deliver others; it is our pain which purchases true freedom.

There is no easy path on the road to grace; indeed, we will never choose willingly those roads which lead to deliverance. The signs will point downward when we wish to go up; they will lead to narrow ledges and steep cliffs when the easy roads seem broad and safe. It is perilous to travel these pathways alone: Christianity is a journey of companions. The path will never be the same for any of us — but those markers which guide us have been placed by many pilgrims who have gone before.

Christianity promises to be the triumph of light over darkness: “The light shines through the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.” But beyond this compelling imagery, what exactly does this imply? The Christian often conceptualizes this luminance as transpiring in the realm of the intellectual: we have, as a result of our recreated life, a deeper understanding of right and wrong, a fresh appreciation for the things of God and the destructiveness of sin. We “see the light,” in the sense of insight, thought, and moral compass.

But the light which casts its brilliance upon us is not merely confined to the mind, for the mind is quick to rationalize and deceive, all too eager to accommodate and justify that which is both dark and destructive. The true power of the light of Christianity shines most brightly in a most frightening place — the place of transparency.

At the heart of our displacement from God, our existential angst, lives the dark angel which goes by the name of shame. While often confused and conflated with guilt, shame is not about behavior which violates a standard — the essence of guilt — but about an inner worthlessness, an empty and terrifying conviction that we are unclean, rejected, contemptible, and hopelessly flawed. To gaze upon this terrifying truth is to stand face to face with destruction, to suffer the catastrophic rejection of any and all who might glimpse our ghastly secret.

This terror drives us, a vicious and merciless master, energizing and engendering a host of fortifications which shroud the secret while simultaneously lending power to its dark dominance. The engine of shame drives before it an endless train of ragged, wretched slaves: condescension and arrogance; fears of every kind; manipulation and control; rage; lust; obsessive and compulsive behaviors conscripted to distract from the death within and kill its ungodly pain.

When these feeble defenses are finally stripped away, as their utility spectacularly fails in some life catastrophe, sundering our lives apart, we come at last to the point of grace: our shame becomes exposed, a gruesome corpse no longer hidden in its shallow grave, its decaying limbs uncovered by the torrential storms of life. The alcoholic hits bottom; the marriage ends abruptly and unexpectedly; a child dies; financial disaster strikes. Whatever the crisis, whatever the circumstances, we come to a point where there is nowhere to fall but into the arms of a graceful and gracious God.

It is at this moment we finally become honest with God, even while enraged at the injustice He has allowed to befall us. It is a severe mercy, a crucifixion not sought yet divinely ordained. Our rage at God is nothing if not honest — indeed, it may prove to be the first honest thing we have done in many a day.

Yet to be honest with God alone — whether in anger, or desperation, or fear, or faith — is to but glimpse the beginning of a transparency which transforms. If we are to seek out the fullness of grace, and find the redeeming and transforming power which grace alone can bring, we must do something else, something far more frightening: we must share our darkest inner lives with others.

Uncomfortable yet? You should be.

The recoil and horror you feel at this prospect is natural — it is the reflexive response of years of defending the darkness, pandering to its relentless demands as it strangles the lifeblood from us. It is the reluctance to have surgery though the cancer will kill you, the end of a deadly dance whose suffocating embrace is asphyxiating your soul.

Such work cannot be done alone. Transparency with God alone is not adequate to the strongholds which enslave us in ways both brutal and ruthless. We must expose our inner selves, our shame, our failings, our fealty to evil — and we must do so with another human being.

The Church exists for a reason: it is the body of Christ on earth. This is not merely a theoretical or theological construct, but a crucial fact: we are the hands, heart, eyes and ears of Christ on earth. Flawed, fallen, feckless, failing, to be sure — yet chosen by God to be very instrument whereby He brings healing and wholeness to its members. The Church is not merely choir members singing hymns, or liturgy, or sermons on Sunday; it is a hospice, a hospital, the tangible instrument whereby Christ, having touched our brokenness with healing grace, uses our very failings as the surgeon’s knife, the lenitive balm to restore and rescue others. Redemption — to be “purchased back” its core meaning — is not just about saving our selves, but salving the souls of others. In the upside-down, counter-intuitive paradox which is the kingdom of grace, our very diseases bring healing to others. The toxic illness which is self-will run riot is broken — and after it is hopelessly shattered and utterly worthless, only then is repurchased by God, at full price, and made into something of great wonder.

When we begin to open our souls to another, our agonized words find common ground in their experience, not only in the depths of our pain but in hope for our deliverance. Our secret shame finds not judgment, but understanding; not criticism but gentle correction; not rejection but relationship with another who has walked these same dark paths and found restoration and wholeness at their end.

Transparency: what you see on the outside is what resides on the inside.

It is, in its simplicity, terrifying yet profoundly liberating. It must be done with wisdom: it is not wise to cast our swine before pearls. Quite often, it will not be found in those who are most religiously righteous. If you look carefully, however, you will find those whose grace and humility bespeak the chrysalis of a new life arisen from brokenness.

Seek them out, and take a risk. You will never look back.

Getting to Grace

Fourth in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace
  3. The Sword of Grace

 
We’ve spent some time recently on relatively heavy-duty topics — like justification, sanctification, and grace — as we’ve explored Christianity as a faith founded on grace and mercy rather than obligation and judgment. Most non-Christians — and far too many Christians, unfortunately — view the Christian faith as a set of rules to follow, a collection of obligations which must be met to “keep God happy.” But it’s not just laws and legalism, but rather a profound inner change of direction and orientation which radically changes the spirit — and leaves the mind and the will stumbling and fumbling behind as they struggle to do in their own power that which they are incapable of achieving.

How do we in practice, in the daily grind of sweat and swearing, facilitate the transformation of the whole being which is the ultimate goal in starting down this path?

For me, it comes down to a simple calculus: what makes me do what I do?

You see, if my goal is to have my thoughts and actions aligned with those of God — when they have spent life running hard in the opposite direction — then something quite essential has to change: my motivation. It has been my experience that the grit-your-teeth-and-just-do-it! approach just doesn’t cut it. Sure, I can muster up will power to bludgeon down the gates of heaven, trudging on for a while doing the “right thing,” but that gets very old and very cold before very long at all.

I’ve concluded that, in essence, I do things in life for one of two reasons: I do them because I have to, or I do them because I want to.

Now, all the shrinks and psychologists out there may be excused, before they start bringing up Oedipus complexes, anal retentiveness, the Id, and a host of other Freudian mechanisms which, frankly, hold little or no interest for me — not because they may not have some influence on me (they may well, but color me skeptical that human motivation is so primitive, brutal, and simplistic), but because they are of no practical value in the day-to-day decision-making that makes up the brunt of life.

So let’s keep it simple: if I’m doing something, I’m doing it because I want to, or because I have to. And sure, there’s a lot of overlap here — I often enjoy many of the things which I am obligated to do. And, this may surprise you: I find that doing things I like is always easier than doing things I must .

This is why, for me, a faith which is all about rules and obligations is so very hard to follow, and ultimately doomed to failure. My natural gravity is this: I like doing the things which are destructive for me and which separate me from God — they seem to be rather hard-wired within. On the other hand, I really don’t want to do “good things” — things which draw me closer to God — because I don’t believe they will make me happy, or benefit me, or they seem too difficult: they are a chore and a bore, best avoided. To my way of thinking, I will be quite happy when I get what I want — and when this doesn’t satisfy, well, then I simply need more of what I want.

And herein lies the miracle of grace: the inner transformation of forgiveness and new life have the power to make me want to do the things which draw me nearer to God — the things I previously had no interest whatsoever in doing. And once I find myself doing such things, motivated out of an inner desire to do them, rather than a crushing obligation of rules and law, I begin to experience the rewards of acting in concert with the purposes of God.

And my life begins to get better, and happier, and a whole lot more peaceful.

It’s the damnedest thing. Really. But it really works.

What is going on in this process is not a repudiation of free will, a blind robotic submission to some nebulous deity; it is rather a confluence of wills. I freely choose to do that which I know to be the right thing, despite my natural reluctance to do so — and find in the doing that the choice opens to me a new experience of God, a new pleasure and satisfaction in doing those things which, despite my innate reticence and selfish reluctance, actually bring about a deep sense of satisfaction, purpose, and joyfulness.

The process works, in my experience, through a series of steps:

♦ Insight & conviction: As I discussed previously, the inner transformation of grace occurs first in the spirit, then percolates up through mind and soul. There comes a rather sudden awareness that certain behaviors, thoughts, actions, and attitudes are no longer okay. Call this conviction, call it conscience, call it dis-ease, call it guilt if you will (a word widely ridiculed in a culture which glories in the shameful, decadent, and destructive). It is a sense of uncomfortableness which acts as as a warning sign, a guidepost which gently alerts you that you’re off course, and acts an inducement to change.

♦ Repentance: The dis-ease triggered by wandering off course triggers a desire to change, to correct the error and get back on track. The will kicks into action, determined to act, think, or speak differently.

♦ Confession and forgiveness: We acknowledge to God that we have wandered away, and offended Him — not because He is a jealous tyrant trying to spoil our fun, but because He is determined in love to draw us closer to Him, and our own actions have ultimate harmed us by separating us from His love and grace.

For many of our character flaws, this sequence brings significant change: the desire to pursue the destructive and hurtful behaviors intrinsic to our old way of life lessens, and often disappears altogether. It becomes easier and more natural to do those things which make our life more peaceful and purposeful, as the new way of living becomes normal and natural. Change comes from the inside out, and with it considerable joy and contentment.

Would that it were always this easy.

Before long we stumble upon the more difficult moral challenges in life, the strongholds which are deeply entrenched in our souls, the behaviors and failures which we seem unable to overcome, despite our growing awareness of how hurtful they are to ourselves and others, and how destructive to a deepening relationship with God. We run through the drill, repeatedly: failure, conviction, repentance, confession, recommitment. Wash, rinse, repeat — endlessly, with no apparent progress and increasing discouragement as the new life seems increasingly powerless and frustrating.

The power of Christianity, the new inner life which transforms, often seems incapable of overcoming such roadblocks. These strongholds may be many: excessive fears; inability to trust; anger and rage; greed and materialism; sexual addictions and compulsions; drug and alcohol abuse; compulsive eating, or gambling, or a host of other destructive habits and obsessions. Many of these arise from deep wounds sustained in life: abuse, abandonment, childhood or adult trauma; severe physical or mental disabilities. Some are even inborn or inherited, such as alcoholism or obesity. Their enslavement seems total, even insurmountable; the journey to wholeness which Christianity promises so often runs aground on their jagged rocks and shallow shoals.

Yet these, too, can be vanquished. These, too, can be not merely conquerable, but will become instruments in the hands of a gracious God to bring extraordinary change, not only within us, but for many others around us.

“The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This was spoken, not only of Christ, but of us: our greatest liabilities can become extraordinary assets in the hands of grace.

But be forewarned: the journey over these jagged crags is a terrifying one — but it is the only way out of the prison. Be prepared to lose all you treasure, and more.

And be prepared to gain vastly more than you bargained for. Getting to grace is a hazardous path — and the most exciting journey you’ll ever take.

The Sword of Grace

Third in an ongoing series on grace in Christianity:

  1. On Purpose
  2. Justification, Sanctification, & Grace

 
We struggled through some intimidating “God-words” — justification and sanctification — in my previous post, and in the process I lost both of my regular readers, leaving but a few wandering insomniacs whose Ambien prescription had just run short. For those now drifting back, whose eyes are just now unglazing, I touched on something of how Christianity works — or doesn’t, for many who have tread its well-worn path.

If nothing else, I hope for those who endured that irreverent review, that there arose at least a glimpse of the uniqueness of the Christian faith. Christianity is not merely another framework of moral codes by which to live. It is not comprised solely of the teachings of a charismatic leader, urging compliance to please or placate God or promulgating some hidden wisdom. It asserts at its very heart an outrageous claim: that those who relinquish their right to self-centered autonomy by submitting to God through the specific and exclusive portal of Christ will become judicially guiltless before their Creator. It further claims — perhaps even more outrageously — by this act to re-create the person so submitting, in a manner so thorough and profound that the individual can no longer be thought of as the same person who existed prior to that moment of choice and submission.

Yet if these claims are true, if this transformation be as radical and profound as its teachings and proponents assert, why then are those who lay hold of this conviction seemingly so little different from others who have not undergone this metamorphosis? If Christians are utterly transformed in the depth of their beings, why do they struggle and fail so often to be outwardly transformed as they should inevitably be by such a tectonic shift of the soul?

I was afraid you were going to ask that.

And I would be presumptuous and foolish to pretend that I have simple answers; I do not. What I do have is experience — the experience of many years of walking the Christian life, with stunning successes which proved all too fleeting, and disastrous failures which made a mockery of the high calling and lofty precepts of the convictions I hold dear. And I have shared this journey and experiences with many others, both past and present, whose path while wildly different in particulars is indistinguishable at its core.

What exactly is the nature of this transformation, this re-creation, which lays claim to a man in such mysterious manner? It is perhaps best described by what it is not.

It is not simply a change in thinking, a new perspective, a different set of opinions or a new worldview. If anything, the mind is the last bastion of resistance to its influence, and often the greatest enemy of the very change needed to transform the whole of one’s being.

It is not simply an emotional experience. Although emotions may be powerfully affected, emotions often serve to inhibit or distract from true progress, and are notoriously unreliable guides to its course.

It is not simply a change of the will, a setting of a new direction and discipline to achieve new goals and improve one’s life. The will, indeed, must be conquered, shackled, broken like a wild stallion to suit the purposes of this new Master. The will becomes but servant — rebellious, recalcitrant, resistant, remorseless, fighting its new overlord at every turn.

It is not simply a change of heart — although the heart lies closest to the seat of change, and senses its arrival before all else.

It is perhaps best described as a genesis; an arid fountainhead bursting forth with fresh spring water; an ancient stygian chamber shot through with dazzling shafts of light; a Phoenix arising from the ashes of the heart. There is a primordial recess in the soul of man, a silent sarcophagus unheralded and unseen, which springs to life like the burst of new flora at winter’s demise, when this dawn first breaks.

Thus is the experience of this new creation — but it is far more than mere renewal. It is as well — unexpectedly, surprisingly — a force of sedition with an unassailable foothold in a hostile land, seeking to undermine and overturn the tyranny of self with the sword of grace.

We are now at war. “I have come, not to bring peace, but the sword.”

Its effects are immediate, and often profound. There is a new vision, a grasp of things formerly hidden, a new light disclosing much which was cloaked in darkness, a profound and unbounded joy of discovery, and purpose, and optimism. We glory in the glint of sunlight reflecting off the helmets of our soldiers, marching in perfect unison, their colorful regalia stirring our hearts with visions of triumphant victory.

The reality is soon discovered to be starkly different. The cratered carnage of the battlefield, littered with the detritus of battles fought bravely but foolishly, sobers the spirit and saps the strength. The victory we hoped to be swift and painless now seems pyhrric if not pointless. Yet the failures are themselves at the point of the sword — they are, paradoxically, the means to triumph.

When a man becomes new in his spirit, he has engaged the very power of God in an irrevocable union whose outcome will be the full restoration of the purpose and relationship intended — by design — between the Creator and His creation. But the love which such a relationship demands must be utterly free, and hence the will and actions of man must be left unfettered and without coercion. This will, long subsumed to the service of self, must ultimately be turned to harmonious submission to the will of God, which desires, in freedom, the full integration of the new man into the wholeness and purpose of God’s design.

Though the inner change brought about by submission to God and our judicial pardon is profound, the mind and the will are steeped in a toxic brew of lifelong slavery to self. We have years of destructively pursuing that which seems right to us — of deceiving ourselves and others about our true thoughts and motives; of addictions and obsessions and hardened habits which have served to mitigate the pain and emptiness which our ego-enlargement have ultimately wrought. We lie to cover the shame; we react in anger, and resentment, and rage to cover the fears: fears of exposure and moral nakedness; fears of rejection; fears of failure; fears of existential insignificance. The sex, the booze, the pursuit of money and prestige, the materialism — all are exploited in search of integration and meaning, all leading only to more emptiness, more pain, more meaninglessness — and more of the same behaviors, over and over, endlessly.

Before our transformation, we are in a sense of one mind: this is the only life we know, the only tools we have at hand. Our inner and outer selves are on the same page, though the story is going nowhere and the final chapter looks bleak.

After our inner selves are transformed, however, the old contrivances no longer find consonance within; they find, instead, dis-ease. Our spirits are forging forward on a separate journey, and there is increasing tension between a mind and a will committed to failed, destructive solutions and an inner being seeking truth and wholeness.

We react to the inner discord our old life engenders with the tools we know best: we try, using knowledge, and effort, and will power, and discipline, to change the thoughts and actions we now know to be destructive. And we succeed — at first.

Sort of.

The behavior changes, but the thoughts and desires linger. The appearance improves, but the inner demons remain — if anything, they grow stronger, as each failure is a new victory for an old life. The struggle is draining and painful, disheartening and exhausting, as old habits persist and even prosper. With each failure, renewed commitment; with each relapse, new resolve. With each sortie, stalemate. Again. And again. And again.

And this, surprisingly, is exactly as it should be.

The mind and the will, unaided by grace, have no power to conquer the forces which bind them. They must be broken. There can be no resurrection of the dead until the dead be shown incapable of resurrection.

At some point in this long and fruitless journey, a juncture is reached. The wheels are coming off the car, and we’ve tired of pushing the pedal ever harder. It is a moment of choice: to resign ourselves to our old life, embrace our failure, and drown out the quiet pleadings of that inner voice; or submit, yet again, broken, falling headlong into the arms of grace, which alone can conquer that which is vastly larger than our feeble wills and darkened minds can overcome.

The sword of grace has slayed yet another stronghold of the old life. Another small parcel of the tyranny of self has been repurchased. We have been given what we could not gain by our own efforts, regardless how determined.

Cheer up. There are many more such battles ahead.

How then do we appropriate this liberating grace, this victory through surrender? There is no formula, for formulas are the haven of fools. But there are answers. The answers, I have found, are always simple — and never easy.

But that, my friends, is a topic for another day.

Back soon, God bless.

Wednesday Links


Been crazy busy the past several weeks, so I’m a bit behind on posts. Here’s some recent links worth checking out:
 

  • Arnold Kling on Health Economics: Well Treated: The Road to McMedicine

    I had wanted to do a more detailed post on this essay, but just haven’t had time. Arnold Kling’s a smart guy, and has a very solid, common-sense approach to economics. His tendency in medical economics is to treat it like any other retail or service industry: just find out what works, and implement those standards, using the lowest-cost provider possible. This won’t work for many reasons, a few of which are: a) the decisions you make about your health are not approached the same way as your decisions about buying a car — there is no transparency, so you cannot accurate judge the quality of the product as a consumer, and people are not coldly rational about things which affect their health and well-being (think: alternative medicine); b) the problem domain is extraordinarily complex, and not easily reducible to black and white “best practice” recommendations (think: is estrogen replacement therapy good or bad for women? We’ve been back and forth on this a dozen times, with huge studies, for thirty years, still no hard answers); and c) the lawyers: it may be entirely rational to omit a CT scan for a low-risk medical problem — but every physician knows if he ends up in court he will lose the lawsuit if he didn’t order it. This is one of the many elephants in the living room Kling never seems to consider.
     

  • Booze, sex, and rock & roll: Two out of three, anyway: must-read essay on the role of alcohol, sexuality, and Christianity:
     

    At the bottom of it all, I think human beings drink because we want to be known, and because we are afraid of being known. We drink because we want to know, and because we are afraid to know.

    Alcohol, shame, nakedness, and grace (HT: Evangelical Outpost)

  • Grow a brain: Gagdad Bob strikes again. Here a taste of his delectable madness:
     

    To quote Arthur Koestler,

    “[T]he evolution of the human brain not only overshot the needs of prehistoric man, it is also the only example of evolution producing a species with an organ which it does not know how to use; a luxury organ, which will take its owner thousands of years to learn how to put to proper use — if he ever does.”

    And luxury is an apt word, for it is a kind of extravagant light placed in the middle of nowhere, like a brain inside Paris Hilton. How did it get there? Why does she have it? She’ll never use it. It will just sit there idly, like a huge inwhoritance she’ll never touch. How could natural selection produce a bunch of nothings capable of knowing the Absolute but individuals capable of knowing absolutely nothing?

     

  • It’s For The Children™: QandO gets down to details on SCHIP, the recently-vetoed Trojan horse of universal government health care coverage: SCHIP – The Numbers
  • Blue Ridge Mountains, Blue Ribbon Writing: Van der Leun at his best — writing just doesn’t get much better than this. Grace in the Blue Ridge Mountains

That’s all for now. Take care, and God bless.

On Miracles: Jesus of the Pagans

Third part of an ongoing series on the problem of miracles, and evidence for the Resurrection:

  1. The Problem of Miracles
  2. On Miracles: The Historical Jesus

 
It has been said that Christianity is the only religion which traces its origins to the humiliation of its God. As followers of its crucified leader dispersed widely after its germinal events, traveling great distances from a remote corner of the Empire over dusty Roman roads, they indeed told a tale bizarre in every respect. How ludicrous the story of a God made man; who worked miracles among men; who suffered the most heinous execution the Romans could devise. A man who, if these fables be factual, arose from the dead, utterly transforming the lives of all who saw Him — these same men who audaciously claimed to be eyewitnesses to this mysterious manifestation.

The people of the ancient world were no strangers to quixotic stories, to endless tales of gods and goddesses, myths and magic. Rome in its pragmatic wisdom absorbed them all, with their blood rites and orgies, their asceticism and temple prostitutes. Such tolerance kept the Empire unified and the conquered content; no sense risking unrest and rebellion over senseless fantasies.

Such legends amused and titillated, and their rituals provided feeble comfort in a brutal world ruled by heartless Fate. Yet Christianity was not merely another imagined tale of jealous gods and devious deities, but carried in its implausible story a spark fully absent from pagan fables: the flicker of hope in hopeless darkness, of purpose in a world chained and weighted to emptiness and futility. This spark fell upon the dry straw of a desperate world, and started a conflagration which reshaped that world in ways unimaginable.
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